Saturday, 22 November 2014

It's beginning to look a lot like (my sort of) Christmas

I am not a Christmas fan, as anyone who knows me (or who's been reading my blog for a while) can attest to. In 2011 I had a general moan about it all and in 2012 I mused the notion of banning Christmas presents.

But last year, I decided to ease off the Scrooge-ness and try to enjoy myself, by making a list of what I actually like about Christmas. After all, I don't hate every single thing. What I hate is all the expectation and debt and over-consumption and waste.  I loved Sarah's post last year about how we get to choose what our Christmas looks like which is so, so true. I've already ditched some of the stuff I really don't like, such as sending cards, buying presents for every man and his dog, going to works nights out, so this year, I've taken things a step further and focused on what I do enjoy about the season, an set myself 12 fun things to do over the coming month. And here they are!

1. Make the house smell like Christmas
2. Have some natural festive decorations
3. Make up a shoe box
4. Donate a child's present to an appeal
5. Make mulled wine
6. Make everyone a handmade present
7. Buy a new (to me) dress for Christmas Day
8. Make something crafty and seasonal
9. See It's A Wonderful Life at the Cinema
10. Make mince pies
11. Take part in Janet's thrifty gift swap
12. Read Christmas stories

So its mostly about scents, reading. buying gifts and making nice things. This sounds like my sort of Christmas! I've finished one item already and started a couple more but I'll blog about them in December. Don't want to get caught up in the Christmas spirit too early....

What are your plans for the festive season, whether you love it or loathe it?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

In Defence of those pesky Benefits Scroungers

I started writing a post about benefit claimants aaaages ago, then decided it sounded a bit cliched so I never finished it. But I've been tidying up my drafts, and I decided that this post actually was worth finishing, so here it is.

I’ve used no statistics or figures here – this is based on my own experience of working with my own caseload of claimants for six years. The main reason I left was because we were no longer allowed to deal with our own caseload, or indeed deal with claimants face-to-face. It was a real shame and it ruined the job for me. I got to know many of them and I still speak to some in passing. I've heard many stories, seen many tears, been frustrated, been angry, been upset, been delighted. And here are my thoughts, based on some of those stories.

Myth 1 – Most of them are Scroungers
Ok, it depends how you define Scrounger. If Scrounger means ‘down on your luck and asking society for a little help’ then yeah, that’s them. And if Scrounger means claiming benefits and working on the fly at the same time, well guess what? That happens. Yes, some of them do indeed claim benefit and do work that they don’t declare. But look at the big picture here. Most don’t. And the fact is, there are unscrupulous people at every level of society. Like everything else, you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. Plus, what’s worse? A benefit claimant defrauding the system of £200 per week, or an MP defrauding the system of £5000 per week in their expenses?

Most of the work ‘on the fly’ is shitty, minimum wage work, like working in takeaways. Or seasonal/occasional work like landing fish or cutting Christmas trees. Grim, manual work - and we’re not talking huge amounts of money here. It doesn’t make it right; it’s still fraud, but in the grand scheme of things there are others, shall we say, who are doing the taxpayer out of much more money, and living the high life while they’re at it.

Myth 2 – They have loads of children so they can get more money
Yes. Because we all know how easy child rearing is, and we all know that they don’t cost much to keep, so that extra  - what £40? – per week will come in useful for paying for exotic holidays, big TVs and fancy cars. Seriously!  If life were that simple, we’d all be doing it.

Most don’t have that many. They have two, three at a push. And to quote Linda Tirado – they have them for the same reasons rich people do. To procreate. It’s easier to judge them though. To say that they shouldn’t have children because the public have to pay for them. Because they’ll become the benefit ‘scroungers’ of the future. But here’s the thing – procreating is a choice. Many people choose to do it. And believe me, people on benefits want better for their children. Much, much better. They want their children to have chances and choices and careers. Many will. Some won’t. But equally, rich kids can end up on down on their luck too. Such is life.

Also, a note on mothers with children to three or more different fathers. I’ve heard various reasons from women in this situation. Because each guy promises her the world, promises her he’s different, that he’ll stick around; because he says he’d accept her other children more if only she would have one with him; because she wants love, and she’s guaranteed to get it from the child long after the latest loser has disappeared; because maybe this one will stick around and be a Dad to them all, if she has one with him. It’s nothing about being a slut or a slag or anything else. Na├»ve sometimes, yes. But mostly lonely, desperate and longing to be loved.

Myth 3 – They don’t want to work
Some are lazy, of course they are. But equally, who hasn’t worked with lazy colleagues? Lazy doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t willing to work. The fact is, there are never enough jobs for everyone. But unemployment is currently at a record low – how could this be the case if all those on benefits aren't willing to work? Plus it’s important to bear in mind that many, many claimants work part-time. They do their bit. They do what they can. 

I recall a single, middle aged woman applying for some help towards her rent because she didn’t earn a lot. But she didn’t qualify for any help. Yet if she reduced her hours, she could get some benefits and be marginally better off. She chose not to. ‘I’d never lower myself to that,’ she said. Sometimes people would be better off on benefits. It’s wrong, but it’s hardly their fault. It’s not so much that benefits are too high, as wages are too low. I also remember a single mother with a couple of children. She’d started working but had to give up as she earned more overall on benefits. She wanted her children to have what they had become accustomed to. It was heart-breaking because she’d been so excited about the job, about being a good role model for her children. It wasn’t an easy choice for her – but it had to be made. Either way was a sacrifice.

Grown men would choke back tears as they explained their frustration at being made redundant and struggling to find anything else. Others wanted qualifications but as benefits for students were so poor, they couldn’t afford to better themselves. Some resorted to illegal work (see myth 1) because they wanted their families to be better off, or because the form filling and red tape to come off benefits for a couple of weeks was too much stress and hassle.

Some simply couldn’t. My sister is a prime example – getting a job when you have learning difficulties is no mean feat. She’s done voluntary work, but there is no support up here for her. She’d need constant support, but who pays for and provides the support? The employer won’t. So that's that, then.

Myth 4 – They waste money on cigarettes, booze, Sky TV, games consoles
How does it feel to be the only child in your class who doesn’t have the latest stuff? Pretty shit, I’d imagine, and no parent wants that for their child. It’s a sad fact that we live in a consumerist society, and all children want the 'in' thing. So yes, their parents buy games consoles, fancy toys and up-to-date trainers. When they can.  Sky TV? They’re not living off a huge budget, possibly no (decent) car and certainly no money for trips/holidays/outings. So some extra programmes, films, sports to watch on TV is all they can manage. Yes, they could save that cash and buy a holiday but bear in mind that would be few and far between, and children need entertainment and treats all year round. Plus, saving is a danger anyway because if it gets too high your income is stopped.

Cigarettes and booze? Cigarettes are often the only luxury they get – easy to buy and instant gratification. Others became addicted young, and struggle to find the time and momentum to give up. But they don’t work, I hear you cry. They have plenty time! But giving up takes support and often they don’t know where to look. Plus, if they’re working two part-time jobs between taking care of three children, stress levels are at a constant high, and smoking helps to to cope with stress. It’s how they get through the day.

Surprisingly, or not, most smokers and boozers I came across were single folk. Parents often simply can’t afford them. It’s hard to justify, but like anything else, they’re entitled to spend their money how they want. We cannot dictate what they spend it on. And when they spend it on cigarettes, they get addicted, just like rich people do.


I sometimes feel patronising when I think/write stuff like this. I work, I have enough to get by, who am I to stand up for these masses? What do I know about it? I’ve been lucky; I claimed benefits for less than a month when I was 21, that’s it. I might not be a part of that world but I’ve had insight into how it works and what lies beneath the media headlines and statistics. The generalisations annoy me, and I think it’s harder for folk in that position to defend themselves because it often comes across as excuses. They get away with nothing. But there's a reality there, and it isn't pleasant. They’re just living their lives and trying the best they can. Bemoaning them and slagging them off achieves nothing. What else are they supposed to do?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

IWSG - Why I've signed up for NaNoWriMo this year

Something I vowed I'd never do again - sign up for National Novel Writing Month. I tried it in 2004 and I succeeded. 50,000 words in 30 days. How did I do it? I'll let you in on a secret. On the 30th November I changed my MC's name to a double name, and I inserted some song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter. Hell yeah! The story was plotless, formless and feckless, and never ever saw the light of day. It was fun in a perverse way but at the same time I didn't see the point, so I decided my NaNoWriMo experience was over. Permanently.

So why am I back on this bandwagon again? Because I'm sick to death of having unfinished novels hanging around. I have three of them. I want at least one of them finished. Even if its shit. I just want it out of my head.

Why can't I finish a novel?

1. I'm a Perfectionist
I may not have a completed novel but I have some fully edited and polished chapters 1 to 5 for your perusal. Oh, just let me make a few more tweaks first, there's a couple of bits I'd like to change in the story, and I'm not sure the first paragraph reads right. Plus I want to cut it down by 1000 words first so that the overall novel won't be long.

2. I'm Impatient
If I could write a novel in a night, I'd have loads of them. I'm all about instant gratification. You most definitely do not get that from a novel.

3. I have a Short Attention Span
I get bored. There's one novel that's been on the go since before my last NaNoWriMo attempt. It's had many rewrites and changes, to the point that its nothing like my original idea. But its never reached an ending. Not even close. I'm always busy changing everything and making it Better (see point 1 about).

4. There are always more fun things to do than write a novel
Like read one that someone else has written! Or surf the net. Or play with the rats. Or housework. Anything that isn't writing, really.

One thing I've learned recently is that life is too damn short and we never know when things are going to fall apart. One day its going to be too late. And I will write a full novel. Even if I never edit it, publish it, or write another one, I will write one. Start to finish. Without the addition of song lyrics. So basically the reason I've signed up to NaNoWriMo again is to get 50,000 words added to this novel without pissing about, so that I'll have something I can work with, if I so choose to. And yes, I know this is against the rules - I'm supposed to start a new novel - but I'm nothing if not a rebel when it comes to breaking rules that really no one gives a shit about.

By the end of November I will have written a novel. Fact.

Has anyone else signed up? Or have you already written a novel? If so  - TELL ME HOW!!!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Flash Vs. Frugal (and how to impress me with your cash)

I was speaking to a guy I know, who was telling me about a cruise he and his wife had booked to the Caribbean. Not my sort of holiday but it sounded as if it would be lovely, and I told him so.

'I hope so,' he replied. 'It isn't cheap.'
'I can imagine,' I politely replied.
'Yeah.' He leaned his head towards me. 'Nine grand for the two of us,' he said out the side of his mouth, as if this was some great secret he was sharing with me.

Now, I hadn't asked the price so there was no need for him to tell me that. And to be honest, I wasn't interested. 

To be fair, he's a nice guy. And I know he doesn't earn far from what I earn so unless he has an inheritance stashed away, I doubt he's loaded. Whether this holiday was paid for by hard-earned cash or by credit card, makes no odds. But the fact that he felt the need to tell me how much it cost, cheapened the entire thing for me.

Likewise a woman at work who had bought a new Audi.

'We won't be getting a new car for a long time,' she said. 'I want to get my fourteen grand's worth out of this one.'

Uh, what? Why are you telling me this?

I'm not the richest person in the world but I'm comfortably enough off. I earn enough to pay the bills and have a bit left over to save and spend. I'm proud to say I'm good with money. What I earn isn't important, as long as I can get by. And I've put my money where my mouth is with that statement (ha!) because I've taken a drop in pay before to get out of  a miserable job into one that makes me happier. Flashiness doesn't impress me in the slightest. It's nothing to do with jealousy (I no more want a Caribbean cruise or an Audi than a hole in the head), I know folk who have plenty money but are gracious and discreet with it. In particular a friend of my Mum whose husband owns a successful business and if they aren't millionaires, they aint far from it. The woman is one of the most humble, decent human beings I've ever met and I love spending time with her. She tells me about the holidays they go on, and I know they cost thousands, although she doesn't have the compulsion to tell me that. Because it doesn't matter. It's  just conversation. She's as interested in my weekends camping in Ullapool as I am in her African safaris. Money really doesn't come into it. At all.

Perhaps its because she's secure in who she is, so she doesn't need to validate herself by adding a price tag to everything. Who knows? 

Speaking of camping though, I remember the time I bought a two-man tent from Argos, reduced from £49.99 to £19.99. I was so proud of myself and told everyone at work.

'Our tent cost four-hundred pounds,' one of the guys bragged, before telling us all about his all-singing, all-dancing expensive tent.

(BTW, if I were to spend £400 on a tent, it would have to sing and dance and all the rest, believe me).

Anyway, I was more impressed with my bargain tent than his £400 tent. Because even if I had £400 I wouldn't spend it on a tent. Frugalism impresses me. It's the polar opposite from what, according to society should impress me, but it does.

I'll be impressed by your Prada jacket. As long as you got it for a tenner from the Charity Shop. I'll be impressed by your pedigree dog. As long as you got him from the Pound. I'll be impressed by your champagne and caviar. As long as you got them from the bargain section in Lidl. I'll be impressed by your £400 tent. As long as you got it for £19.99 in the Argos sale.

Are you flash or frugal? And which would impress you more - a nine grand cruise or a £19.99 two-man tent?!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The New Normal

I've been planning another blog post for a while but have been struggling to come up with something lightsome after the drama of my previous post. And before I go on, THANK YOU to everyone who left a comment on my last post. It means a lot, really it does. I don't know (most of) you in real life, and for you to take the time to give a shit about someone you don't know and have never met, says a lot about you all as people. Really. The internet can be a horrible place, but it can be an awesome place too.

So, things are fine. I've not been blogging - not been on the net much at all really. Just watching Adam recover by the day and trying to figure out where I go next in life, because one thing we've both learned recently is that life is far too short to be wasted.

I had the day off work today. Adam was awake most of the night with a really sore head. Doesn't sound like a big deal but it was a worry as he's been doing so well, and I didn't want to leave him alone. Right now he's downstairs attempting an X-Box game and singing mournfully along with Johnny Cash. His head still hurts but not as much. 

Apart from the sore head today, everything is good. It's funny though, how life now appears to be back to normal. In a lot of ways, it is. But in other ways its so different. It's our New Normal.

New Normal is...six pillows on his side of the bed; handrails at the top of the stairs and a seat in the bath; both of us in hysterics at his fruitless attempts to put one foot in front of the other as he climbs the stairs; reassuring him in the middle of the night that the reason his pillow is wet is because he's been sweating, and not because his (almost healed) wound has burst; me having to be the physically strong one and pulling a muscle from lifting a slab of concrete off the driveway; me being the driver and stalling the car at every set of lights because I'm so used to driving the work van; the five minute walk to my parents' house taking twenty minutes because he gets so tired; me turfing him out of bed at 5.45am because I need to get to work and he can't get down the stairs without me there; me cutting the nails on his right hand because he can't bite them as it feels too weird; always holding that same hand when out in public because too much stimulation makes it jerk and flap; him giving me 'at least you didn't have a brain tumour' whenever I complain about something, and me retaliating by bouncing my head off the sofa arm and saying 'haha, you can't do this'.

But really, its all good. I'm smiling as I write this. I have loads of exciting plans for the remainder of the year. Nothing big and dramatic of course, as we can't go far from home. But that's a good thing. Sometimes its good to be reminded that we can have fun so close to home. Especially with the onslaught of the winter weather already....

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Week that Life threw us into a Parrallel Universe.....

I've debated whether to write a post about this or not, because really it was someone else's battle, but in the end I decided, what the hell - this is my blog and my feelings and I wanted to offer an explanation as to why I haven't been blogging lately and where the hell I've been. Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably have a fair idea of what's been going on, which is basically that we've been to hell and back over the last few weeks. On the plus side, we're most definitely back, and things are looking positive. 

So, on the 15th September we started our week's leave. We were meant to be going to Berlin but had put it off because Adam was waiting a Neurologist's appointment for his headaches that had been off and on for the last year but were now pretty much constant. He still didn't have an appointment but we made a GP appointment as his vision was starting to get a bit shaky when the headaches were bad. On the 16th September he had a scan that confirmed he had a 'mass' in his head. On the 17th September he was supposed to be flown from Caithness General Hospital to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary to find out what the hell it was, but due to the fog he was driven down by ambulance (he's still gutted at missing out on a helicopter trip though...).

And on the 19th September, when the rest of Scotland was deciding Scotland's future, Adam's future was confirmed as being just as uncertain. The mass was indeed the one thing we didn't want it to be - a brain tumour.

Now, Adam was the 'victim' here but I'm not on this blog to tell his story, I'm here to tell mine, and up until the day the mass was confirmed as a tumour, I have never felt so ill, lost and confused in my life. Adam was in hospital, I couldn't sleep and had weird half-awake dreams where he was floating in some sort of red/orange ether beyond my reach. I was scared. And I did the only thing I could do which was drag out every fear from the recesses of my mind, haul them into the light and face them. Adam could die. That was the worst fear of all, but I faced it. I told myself it over and over, and I cried. I told myself he could suffer horribly, that surgery could leave him a different person, that this could be the end for him and I one way or another. I spent a day and a night examining those fears and really feeling them. And then it was OK. I was ready for the worst. And when I heard those dreaded two words, I did not fall apart. I could face them head-on.

I went to Aberdeen on the Friday with the intention of spending the weekend with him, but he was booked in for surgery on Tuesday, so I stayed down. I was fine though. I was able to face life and deal with what it was throwing at us. The awesome Sarah can vouch for that - she invited me round for tea and a sympathetic ear on the Saturday (which was much appreciated, although the highlight of my visit was the moment when Polly came in to say hello and let me stroke her head. Just once, but believe me I was honoured by that).

To cut what's becoming a long story short, the tumour was removed successfully on 23rd September and Adam is home and doing well. It hasn't been confirmed as benign but has been confirmed as a meningioma which tends to be benign, plus the Consultant confirmed that the way it was behaving was classic of a benign tumour). That's not to say it wasn't dangerous - it was pushing on a part of his brain that would have eventually rendered him unconscious as it grew. 

He has a lot of weakness and lack of feeling in his right hand side. He can't tell if he's too close to something and his right hand shakes uncontrollably if he feels mildly stressed or threatened. His wound is healing but is itchy (it had 42 staples in it and looked SO gruesome!). He complains he feels drips, swooshes and gushing inside his head - all completely normal, even if the thought does freak me out. He will be off work until at least next year and he won't be driving for a long time. But he's home alive and well, and that's all that matters.

We've learned a lot through this, and we're both still processing it all. Adam was an absolute hero throughout, taking it in his stride and remaining stoic about it. I asked him before the surgery if he was scared. He shrugged. A bit, he said. But it was in there, and it had to come out. End of story. His strength of character and the way he retained his sense of humour throughout the whole thing has reminded me why I love him. He was more worried about me having company and eating properly than worrying about himself. A diversion tactic maybe, but a wonderful trait all the same,

As for me, I am stronger than I ever imagined I could be. I'm lucky in that I've never been seriously ill, never spent a night in a hospital, never had surgery. The mere thought of anything medical would freak me out at the best of times. But I got through it. I dealt with it. I didn't fall apart.

We never for one minute suspected a tumour as he had no symptoms despite the headache, but as it was slow growing, his brain simply moved to accommodate it. It seems odd to say he was lucky, but clearly he was.

It's all going to be OK.

**Disclaimer - This post has been free-written and is unedited because its something I needed to get off my chest quickly and without over-thinking. So you'll just need to deal with the typos, I'm afraid**

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

IWSG - Sometimes Words Fail Me

I've rejoined the Insecure Writer's Support Group! Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for founding and hosting it.

As someone who spends most of their life submerged in words, it always surprises me how sometimes, I just can’t find the right ones. Small talk stumps me; once we’ve discussed the weather I struggle. I cling feebly to any personal snippet I can find out about the person, and I try to base a conversation around that, but sometimes it ends up falling flat on its face too. Cue awkward silence. Or painful small talk that is so blatantly small talk that it’s not worth the breath I use to utter it.
                ‘That car is a nice shade of green.’
                ‘Quiet in here, isn’t it?’
                I am interested in other people. I like finding out about their lives, for the selfish reason that they may offer me something I can give to a character in my writing. A trait, an interesting profession, an anecdote involving a mother-in-law and a pair of false teeth in a small wooden coffin. There is no doubt in my mind that the truth is stranger – yet always more plausible – than fiction.
                But I am not a natural conversationalist. Being introverted means that it’s something I have to work at. Even conversations with people I know well are sometimes trying. I only have so much mental energy, and when it runs out, it runs out. I shut down. Conversation has to end and I need to remove myself from the situation and be somewhere alone to recharge. I’m surprised at how common a need this is. I often assumed that I was a bit odd – and maybe I am but that’s for another day – but from what I’ve read this is an introvert trait, so often when I am feeling the need to wrap up the small talk and curl up alone with a notepad and pen, there’s a high possibility that the other person is wishing I would cut the crap and go away. Good to know.

And of course, being a writer means that the written word rarely comes easily. I am not a professional writer but I still define myself by that term. I wonder sometimes though, if it puts too much pressure on me. I am a writer, I must write. But if I accepted that writing was simply a hobby maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on myself. I never tell myself, I am a knitter, I must knit. Joking aside, I do want to get started with knitting again not least because I have two unfinished projects to complete, but I never put myself under the same pressure. I also have two unfinished novels, but unlike the abandoned knitting, these novels weigh heavily on me. I feel them every time I write anything. I feel them any time I work on something that isn’t them. I feel them right now. Despite the fact I gave myself express permission to mothball them for 2014 and work on short stories. Which I’ve done. I’ve written and submitted more short stories this year than I’ve done in the last 33 years put together. I am a writer. I am writing. But still it never feels like enough.